Inside The Music And The Masks
by Ronin Ro
[The Mail on Sunday Review 2012]
THE 1980s was a decade crammed with music superstars - Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston. Prince was in no sense the biggest. But he was far and away the most brilliant. He was also the most ingenious and influential, setting the pace not only for a host of disciples, but for many of his own chart rivals.
This wasn't a creative arms race like that between The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys in the Sixties, when each attained new heights vying to outdo the others. Throughout the heyday of this prolific and wildly inventive figure, Prince's competitors were chasing shadows. By the time they caught up to where he had been, he was long gone.
Typically, a pop star teeters atop a pyramid of producers, composers, players, stylists, publicists and so forth, all of them channeling their energies into his or her image, product and career. Prince inverted the pyramid. Everything came from him - a relentless outpouring of music and ideas, filling up not only his own copious release, movie and tour schedule but those of sundry satellite acts, some of whose albums he recorded on his own, under pseudonyms. He was a tiny Atlas holding up an ever expanding sky.
The crowded payroll of his Paisley Park operation served those parts of Prince's vision he could not physically enact himself. And that wasn't for lack of trying. He burned himself out in the process, leading to what, if they were not nervous breakdowns and overdoses, looked much like them from the outside.
Come the Nineties, Prince's star fell further and faster than any of his peers'. He had built his success not only on phenomenal talent but on control freakery, a monomaniacal work ethic, unassailable self belief, mystique-building reclusiveness, and an independent streak that often veered off into pig-headed hostility. These were assets only as long as he was turning out first-rate work. Thereafter, they became liabilities.
Prince could not see when his plans were conceptually flawed, impracticable or unaffordable, his music lacklustre, his spiritual blather trite and tedious. Nobody who had his ear would tell him. The exception being Madonna who, with an acumen otherwise lacking in her film career, informed him that the Graffiti Bridge project in which he sought to cast her was, “a piece of s***.”
Prince: Inside The Music And The Masks, Ronin Ro's thorough, straight bat biography, depicts a character driven by his unstable childhood. Prince would mythologise this upbringing via the character of The Kid in the 1984 film of Purple Rain. His father was indeed a frustrated musician, but not - as depicted in the movie - routinely violent and abusive. Prince's mother was black, but The Kid's was white - as is Minneapolis, the city of Prince's birth. Prince grew up broke, in a soon to be broken home, flitting between households, a frequent target of racial abuse, seeing music as his only escape. Flouting race taboos was a key part of both his personality and, in a formally segregated music industry, his act: “Don't make me black,” he told the startled executives at Warner Bros. Records who signed him as a supposed seventeen-year-old prodigy. (He had knocked two years off his age.)
In the Nineties, Prince fought bitterly and at length to end his reliance upon Warners, who have traditionally been cast as the dictatorial villains of the piece by the star and his fans. Ro offers a different take on the story, suggesting Warners kept faith with their man to the point of indulgence - an experience that will have been shared by very few musicians. He shows how, even as Prince's artistic imagination ran dry, his marketing strategy - employing major labels when it suited him, cutting them out when it didn't - became increasingly innovative and resourceful. Prince today finds himself in healthier shape than the now battered, self-destructive industry with which he went to war. On the way, he created templates for other artists to cope with the Internet age.
It would take a higher-minded reader than this one not to feel disappointed at how little Ro's account features by way of juicy trivia about so lascivious a figure. The fellow celebrities with whom he was rumoured to be romantically involved - Madonna, Kim Basinger and Sherilyn Fenn among them - are dealt with chiefly as professional associates. Ro lets us deduce for ourselves that Prince's long-term relationships, including two marriages, have tended to involve women over whom he has the upper hand - employees and protegees. The author's tact is best displayed in his careful handling of the loss suffered by Prince and his then wife Mayte in 1996, when their infant son died within days of birth.
That no photographs accompany the text is a shame; and Ro's dry, “Just the facts, ma'am” approach largely bypasses the opportunity to convey just how radical, significant and exciting a figure Prince has been in recent pop culture. But for anyone primarily interested in Prince's recording history, and what his battles reveal about the music business, Ro's book is just the thing.